Pitkin's wittgenstein the Influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Political Theory

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The Influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Political Theory

by Johannis Bin Abdul Aziz

Many contemporary political theorists who work with the ideas and methods of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy owe a debt to Hanna Pitkin’s seminal work, Wittgenstein and Justice. In it, Pitkin provided a very early statement about the usefulness of Wittgenstein’s work in delineating a new approach to methodological and substantive issues in the social and political sciences. This paper will first attempt to narrate Wittgenstein’s conceptual influences on Pitkin’s political theory as a point of historical interest in Anglo-American interpretive political thought. However, while Pitkin’s criticisms against a conservative reading of Wittgenstein are valid, it is equally unlikely that Wittgenstein should be read as a liberal. This paper’s secondary aim is to challenge Pitkin’s liberal account of the substantive political implications of Wittgenstein’s work by tracing the source of her liberal commitments to secondary authors.


Hanna Pitkin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, ordinary language, political discourse, liberalism


The Influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Political Theory

The number of political theorists today that work directly with the concepts or investigative method of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is not insignificant but nonetheless modest. Still, many of them owe a debt to Hanna Pitkin’s seminal work, Wittgenstein and Justice. In it, Pitkin provided an early statement about the usefulness of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in delineating a new approach to methodological and substantive issues in the social and political sciences. Methodologically, Pitkin took Wittgenstein’s postanalytic epistemology as requiring a radically holistic approach to social theory, leading her to argue for the (not uncritical) acceptance of certain contradictions such as the ultimately irreconcilable differences between causal and purposive explanation in social science. To Pitkin, Wittgenstein’s epistemology teaches us that the human subject of social science is a situated rational being acting in particular and often opposing contexts. Thus, generalising from different sets of contexts would quite naturally lead to contradictory generalisations. But here, we are more interested in the substantive social and political implications that she finds in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and in her justification that, “method often dictates content.”1 From Wittgenstein’s epistemology she reads a postfoundationalist social ontology based on the situated rationality of our form of life and on this basis she goes on to make substantive claims about politics and the practice of political theory.

Using Wittgenstein’s understanding of the deep structure of human social relations, Pitkin is centrally concerned with uncovering moral issues that lie hidden under sedimented social and linguistic practices – the idiomatic dirt that gets swept under the carpet. In this situation, “those in power and prestige in a society often have an interest in keeping things as they are…and they are in a position to make it to other people’s interest to do so as well. Large groups of people, even whole societies, can thus come to avert their eyes from familiar but uncomfortable realities: dislocations, inconsistencies, injustice. Even victims, up to their necks in the dirt may not see it for what it is.” 2 Consequently, for Pitkin, the political relevance and importance of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy comes from its resemblance to psychoanalysis, “in that both are methods of indirection, designed to liberate their practitioners from constraints that are in some sense self-imposed,”3 This will give us the opportunity to view our conventional ways of looking at political problems as only one option among many, which is important because we tend to be enthralled by conventional ‘pictures’ of political organization. The correct application of this indirection will, “culminate not in reconciliation to some inescapable feature of our human condition that we had yearned to flee, but rather in the political alteration of offensive social conditions that we had yearned to ignore.”4 Pitkin’s approach then, echoes Stanley Cavell’s ‘conversation of justice’ which affirms the heterogeneity of human society and, “reveals spaces for political dissent from any society that does not allow for the intelligibility of all its members.” 5 This conversation is of course reflected in language and with Wittgenstein’s philosophy suitably directed at language Pitkin feels she can recover, “the lost realities of the past and the suppressed “dirt” of the present,”6 that lay buried in our linguistic practices. For Pitkin, Wittgenstein’s method shows her how, “perfectly ordinary people,” can, “reinterpret their own tacit knowledge critically,” and how political theorists like her can join in the, “emancipatory effort”.7

Clearly then, Pitkin feels that her liberal Arendtian views finds much methodological and ontological support in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy and in taking substantive political implications from a pre-existing philosophy, Pitkin is in good company; she follows a long line of political theorists from J.S. Mill (utilitarian consequentialism) to John Rawls (Kantian deontology). However, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, even if it exemplified new investigative methods, had anti-theoretical tendencies substantively speaking. And while Pitkin admits that her studies of Wittgenstein’s political implications are nowhere near complete, she still consistently finds left civic republican implications from Wittgenstein’s work. Wittgenstein and Justice, while expressly meant only to suggest further studies, presents us with a coherent politically normative vision despite it investigating a wide range of subjects. Thus, Pitkin’s work is an unusual combination of a modernist theory-building project based on a postmodernist philosophy (in so far as the later philosophy of Wittgenstein is anti-positivist and anti-formalist). Her project is not only to give a survey of the various ways Wittgenstein’s work has value for the methods of social and political sciences, but also 1) to refute politically conservative readings of Wittgenstein and 2) to counteract the influence of positivism in the social and political sciences that results in the, “vague but persistent feeling about social science and social scientists: that they are somehow destructive or cynical, that they are somehow cowardly or reluctant to make commitments and judgments, that they are somehow intrinsically conservative and supportive of the status quo.” 8

In the textual analysis to follow, we will see that although most of the direct revelations above about her liberal leanings were only published in the preface to the paperback edition, in the main text itself, Pitkin clearly couples Wittgenstein’s philosophy with left civic republican assumptions and principles. By giving us a political reading of Wittgenstein that is consonant with such liberal Arendtian values, Pitkin sought to refute conservative readings of Wittgenstein. And, as I have shown elsewhere, by delineating a social scientific methodology based on Wittgenstein’s postanalytic epistemology that can give due regard to the role of moral standards in social activity, Pitkin sought to counter the conservative influence of positivism in the social sciences. This work was inspired, in large part, by the totalitarianism Pitkin witnessed spreading across the world after World War II. Evidently, her project is an anti-conservative one.

The textual analysis of Wittgenstein and Justice to follow will allow us to identify in what manner Wittgenstein’s ideas have affected Pitkin’s political thought and also to identify her secondary influences and the sources of her moral commitments. This analysis is submitted as a matter of interest in the history of Anglo-American political thought. Nonetheless, while Pitkin argues against a conservative reading of Wittgenstein, it is unclear whether a liberal Arendtian reading of Wittgenstein is any more correct given his anti-theoretical tendencies and the fact Pitkin leans heavily on secondary authors for her political commitments. I will consequently argue that while Wittgenstein’s later philosophy does indeed have interesting implications for thinking about politics, accepting and embracing a Wittgensteinian investigative method and social ontology need not exclusively entail liberal views such as Pitkin’s. I will do this by showing how the same method and ontology may also form coherent support for a less liberal and more multiculturalist communitarian view. I offer this alternative reading not as the correct political reading of later Wittgenstein, but as evidence that there is probably no one correct set of political values that is strictly implied by Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. So while Pitkin is free to build a theory from inspiration gathered from many sources, I argue that one cannot give undue credit to any single source and therefore one cannot hold to Pitkin’s suggestion that “method often dictates content”9 too strongly.

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